Language Therapy: The Case Against the Word “Please”

Janine Shapiro, Co-Clinical Director of Access Behavior Analysis

In my last blog post, I discussed the reasons why it’s best to avoid teaching the word “more” as a first word.  Now, I’d like to make a case against the word “please.”  I’ve seen some practitioners teach “please” as a first word, and when this occurs, the pitfalls are largely the same as teaching the word “more” as a first word.  Once you’ve taught a child a general request that can essentially provide access to anything, it’s very difficult to subsequently teach additional words.  Also, just as with “more,” you have to already know what the child wants in order to honor the request.  And since it becomes difficult to teach a child additional request words, you set up a roadblock to teaching the child to request items that are not present.

Why not teach children to be polite?

More often, “please” is not the first word taught, it’s the second word taught.  In my experience, as soon as a child masters his first word, it’s not long until a practitioner will give the directive to add “please” to the request word.  For example, “cookies, please.”  On the surface, it doesn’t appear as though anything is wrong with this.  Why not teach children to be polite? 

The power of language

When first teaching language to children, it’s important to demonstrate to them the power of language.  Initially, as much as possible, the goal should be to teach language that benefits the child.   We want to make it as easy as possible for the child to associate the act of talking with the benefits of doing so.  It is this very reason why we start with requests rather than labels of items when teaching children with language difficulties to talk.  When we add the word “please” it doesn’t seem like a great burden, but it doubles the response effort from one word to two words.  And what does the child get for now saying two words instead of one?  The exact same thing he received when he put forth half the effort.

Instead of teaching the word “please,” I’d rather the child learn a whole new request.  When I do begin to teach two words, I frequently structure the task so that the increased response effort leads to greater benefit.  For example, instead of “cookies, please” I could have the child say “cookies, milk.”  Now, the child says two words, and gets two items.  Or, I could teach the child to tell me the type of cookie he wants.  These additional words provide a benefit to the child. 

As a speech-language pathologist, I also recognize that as phrase length increases, often times, intelligibility decreases.  When children first begin to speak, their speech is usually unclear.  Adding unnecessary words will often make it less likely that the listener understands the child.  Which means that the child could put forth twice the effort and receive nothing in return. 

Please, wait

Of course, the word “please” is important in life.  As a person gets older and more conversational, the word increases the likelihood that the request will be honored.  But, this isn’t the case with a young child just learning to talk, especially one with a developmental disability.  Typically developing children begin combining words once their vocabularies hit about fifty words.  Even then though, “please” is not likely to be produced or required until their language progresses further.  So while we can all agree that politeness is important and should be taught, focus first on developing functional language that benefits the speaker and later on social niceties…please. 

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